Owner of what may be the tiniest US bookstore looks to create community in Sonoma County

Poet's Corner Book Shop is among a group of small businesses hoping to create real communities as pandemic-weary shoppers emerge from virtual spaces.|

As Stephanie Culen last year sat on a bench outside the shopping village at Duncans Mills, she spotted a 250-square-foot structure that would be a perfect writer’s studio amid the scenic hamlet just north of the Russian River.

Yet Culen readily acknowledged that while she enjoys writing in her journal, she wouldn’t put the building to good use as a writer’s retreat. She distinctly remembered during her graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College that the late author Joseph Campbell had such an office refuge at the Bronxville, New York, campus.

But the tiny building had a hold on Culen, 52, who moved from New York City to Sonoma County five years ago and has had a varied career as a schoolteacher, yoga instructor and most recently in wine sales at Foley Family Wines and Halleck Vineyard.

The idea kept bubbling up inside of her to do something with the space, especially given all the change ongoing with the coronavirus pandemic, ranging from those who moved into the area from larger cities or have quit their jobs to do something more fulfilling.

“I should say many of us were kind of dreaming of like, ‘Well what now?’” she said.

That internal churning ultimately led her to open in early November the Poet's Corner Book Shop. It’s a one-woman business operating out of what might be the smallest bookstore in the United States. Culen is approaching a one-year anniversary in which she’s doing “a little bit better than breaking even” by her own account.

Culen and other owners of small businesses like hers are hoping to tap in to pandemic-weary consumers’ desire to ditch online shopping and home delivery for something tangible, and a sense of shared community.

“This wasn't a dream of mine to have a bookshop,” said Culen as her dog, Bianca, rested upon the one chair near the tiny counter inside. “The dream was what can I offer to the community that I know that I could be good at? That I can create a space to allow people to have an experience — but also to provide a product that will be purposeful, useful and beautiful?”

The store sells a mix of books from beach reads to Walt Whitman poems to a recent book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. It also offers up unique gifts such as a Cabin Porn calendar featuring cozy structures and children’s games such as glow-in-the-dark puzzles.

But Culen said she realized that in her journey from the bench to the now daily visits from the UPS driver dropping off boxes that there was something grander in her plans. That something couldn’t be summed up in a business plan template or first-year revenue projections. It was about helping to create community.

“This (pandemic) isn't going to last forever,” she said. “We people are going to want to come together. People are going to want to touch books again.

“They’re going to want to get off Zoom meetings and get off computers and they’re going to want to touch paper. They’re going to want to be out in the world … and share stories and share ideas. And I have a strength of creating experiences for people.”

Culen is not alone in that view, as other small business entrepreneurs also believe that after 19 months since the onset of the pandemic that more people are inclined to ditch the digital lifestyle of shopping from Amazon, food delivery from Grubhub and entertainment from Netflix for more communal activities. They contend that local merchants can have an upper hand against their digital rivals.

That’s the case with Tifani Beecher and Melissa Stewart, two local women who recently opened Dandelion, a new store at Montgomery Village. The store features a mix of clothing for children and moms. They also wanted to craft a space for children’s programs with a pint-sized portrait studio along with a floral cart inside the store.

“We are trying to create a sense of community,” Beecher said.

Avid Coffee also is looking to strengthen its ties within the county with by participating in more events as well as local charitable efforts, said owner Rob Daly. The local company, which was formerly named Acre Coffee, was a prime gathering place pre-pandemic with a large variety of customers ranging from students to moms to retired folks. Some of its pre-pandemic on-site business has been recaptured by the addition of more outdoor seating.

“I think it’s less of a business strategy than a cultural shift,” Daly said of efforts by businesses to foster more community. “I think coming out of (the pandemic) and finding ways to really connect outside of our four walls is I think is going to be a valid direction for everybody.”

The bet on whether these efforts can pay off financially in the long term remains uncertain, said Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University.

“There may be some post-pandemic renaissance and people want to get out,” Eyler said. “It will be intriguing to watch to see if people come back to that same flow.”

Areas that see more tourists such as the town of Sonoma and city of Healdsburg should do better with foot traffic, with visitors supplementing the locals who want to get out, he said. Shopping areas that have continual events will likely benefit, including The Barlow in Sebastopol, which had a summer concert festival this year and just had a 10K race and beer festival last weekend.

“It’s really what are you doing uniquely to draw people down there and have it consistently work?” Eyler said. “That’s the only way those partnerships work.”

Culen’s bookstore gets about 60% of out-of-town visitors and the rest are locals who she hopes will become regular customers, who can order online for new or popular releases.

“I'm a big believer in finding a formula that works,” she said. “Then wash, rinse, repeat until it doesn't work. Right now, it looks like I've got a formula that works.”

Her long-term goals include hosting online book clubs and writing workshops along with community events as there is a large outdoor patio around her business that could serve groups. That could include possibly adding some nice seating, a fire pit and self-serve coffee.

“That's what I see in the future in terms of the business and the books. I just continue to try being a hub,” she said.

The bookstore is a lean operation — the strategic product stacking could even make a room designer from an Ikea showroom envious — that Culen has self-financed. She doesn’t carry a lot of inventory to saddle her credit line, preferring to order frequently if a certain product proves to be a popular seller.

“I just stay really tight. I just watch my numbers. I watch my cash flow and I purchase very carefully and I purchase often,” Culen said.

The payoff so far for Culen was one day when a couple visited with four children ranging in ages from 16 to 3. They were all able to select an item for themselves.

“Not only with a book, but with the book that they were looking for and wanted. I felt very accomplished and felt really good that a family of six of all different ages and genders could come into the smallest bookstore in the country and find something,” Culen said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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